Politics and Disability in Ethiopia

The NIPSA-funded project to help Ethiopian trade unions develop their skills and expertise in the area of disability rights is really taking off now. And Ethiopia certainly needs a little solidarity from friends outside.

In October, the Government of Ethiopia imposed a state of emergency on the country – banning the use of certain social media sites, banning access to some foreign TV channels and even forbidding foreign diplomats from travelling more than 25 miles outside the capital, Addis Ababa. The travel ban on diplomats was lifted in early November, after much protest and huge pressure from foreign donor nations, but there is still a ban on anybody visiting factories, farms or government institutions between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. the following day. The situation is serious in the country, following riots and civil protest, especially in the two main areas inhabited by the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups (who make up over 60% of the population), and after the deaths of between 400 and 500 people over the summer months as ordinary people protested government policies, decisions and perceived inaction.

And in politically delicate situations, trade unions usually need all the help they can get.

That is why the NIPSA project to help defend and promote the rights of workers with disabilities is proving really helpful in strengthening the overall status and capacity of the trade union movement in Ethiopia. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has singled out NIPSA for special praise, arguing that a Training Workshop for senior officials across the trade union movement in Ethiopia is particularly welcome at this time


After a brief visit to Addis back in June, Disability Aid Abroad (DAA) agreed final preparations for a Workshop, which successfully took place in mid September – 21st to 23rd, in Dire International Hotel, Adama, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa, the capital. Two of our colleagues from other African countries expertly facilitated the event: Mr Vincent Kaduma from Tanzania and Mr. Yazidi Baligasima from Uganda. (And you thought ‘Alldred’ was a difficult name!!) Vincent has a life-long disability himself and has helped us with training events in his home country previously, whilst Yazidi has considerable stature in the trade union movement across East Africa for his expertise on disability rights issues.

The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) is our operational partner for this important project, and they were really helpful in ensuring that some very senior figures in the country’s trade union movement attended the Workshop and learned of the increasingly important area of disability rights. There were senior members of CETU’s regional structures – from 5 of the country’s main regions – as well as important figures from the major trade union federations (of which there are 9 in Ethiopia). The Food, Beverage and Allied Trade Union; the National Banking Trade Union; Transport and Communication Workers; Tourism, Hotels and General Service Workers; Energy, Chemical and Mine Workers; Textile, Leather and Garment Workers; Commerce, Printing and Technical Workers; Farm, Plantation, Fishery and Agro-forestry Workers – every major branch was represented at a really high level.

When we reported the outcome of the Workshop to our friends in the ILO Geneva Office, they were really excited. In their view, disability rights awareness is not widespread in many African countries and the project’s very professional efforts to help Ethiopian trade unions get to grips with not just the theory but the practicalities of implementing those rights in specific workplaces and industries was seen as a great contribution. That individual trade union federations now have the all-important buy-in from their most senior staff is a huge bonus for future disability rights work in Ethiopia.

Among the 22 recommendations from the September Workshop are the following:

  • holding Training of Trainers’ Workshops for the overall Confederation;
  • training Disability Champions in each of the 9 Federations, to address their specific needs and circumstances;
  • establishing Committees for Workers with Disabilities at CETU and Federation levels;
  • conducting a survey on the extent of employee-related disabilities;
  • incorporating disability rights in Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs); and
  • forging alliances with disability rights activist groups and organisations for mutual support, lobbying and advocacy, and the sharing or best practice.

NIPSA and DAA have now established credibility with Ethiopia’s trade union movement on a national level – and there are one or two important Government/Party people in key positions within CETU, thus giving us added legitimacy within Government. We have also generated interest within ILO, who have seen the Disability Champions model established already in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania and are now interested in joining with DAA in writing a Training of Trainers Manual for Disability Rights work across Africa.

The very successful Workshop in Adama in September has been brilliant in paving the way for a much more thorough embedding of disability rights activism across trade unions the length and breadth of Ethiopia. So 2017 (or 2009 in Ethiopia’s own calendar!) promised to be a good year for workers with disabilities, even if the national context is sombre. NIPSA’s great work internationally, through its Global Solidarity Committee, is making really important progress – quietly, diligently, effectively – and demonstrating ever so clearly what solidarity is all about. As they say in Ethiopia, “Amasaginallehu!” – or “Thank you!”.